The Magazine

Spiritualpolitique

Religion matters more than ever in global affairs. But don't count on the experts--or the State Department--to know that.

May 14, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 33 • By JOHN J. DILULIO JR.
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First published in 2002, and since reissued in many different languages, Warren's prayer-and-meditation manual has sold globally in volumes few nonfiction books have ever achieved. (Warren co-pastors a megachurch in California called Saddleback, with more than 80,000 members.) The goateed, born-again baby-boomer boasts a Bible-believing pro-life, pro-family theology. True to stereotype, a few journalists at the gathering looked for Pat Robertson beneath Warren's Hawaiian-print shirt but could not find him. In fact, Warren has long since fallen out with many fellow white evangelical leaders. To them, his sins include cavorting with Pentecostals and others they consider to be theologically incorrect; tooting "creation care" (environmental protection); and nonpartisan hobnobbing with pro-choice politicians, including Democrats, who share his global antipoverty and public health agendas.

At the Pew gathering, the purpose-filled pastor got relatively few questions in the session and over meals about his international ministries and other globe-trotting adventures. His various training programs and "tool kits" have reached an estimated 400,000 ministers in more than a hundred countries. His interfaith antipoverty and public health (most recently antimalaria) programs have purportedly reached millions. His biggest battles to date have been over how he has used his global bully pulpit. For instance, last November he saddled over to Syria and sounded off on human rights, but seemed dangerously naive about the regime's terrorist ties. In February he was scheduled to preach in North Korea but postponed the trip. (Good call.)

Still by far the single biggest "megachurch" presence on the global scene is the Catholic church. Roman Catholicism claims a billion followers and growing. America's Catholics, roughly a quarter of the U.S. population, are just 5 percent of the church's global flock. Pope Benedict XVI is "too strict" for many Catholics in America, not to mention Catholics in Europe. But he is generally viewed as a moderate by the conservative Catholic leaders and throngs in Africa.

All in all, there are today two billion Christians worldwide, and Christianity in various orthodox forms, from Pentecostalism to Vatican-certified Catholicism, is the world's fastest-growing religion. Take it from Penn State's superb global religions watcher, Philip Jenkins, who has established beyond any reasonable empirical or historical doubt that, for decades now, Catholicism and many other Christian sects have been growing rapidly in the southern hemisphere. By or before 2050, Africa will supplant Europe as home to the most Christians. In 1900, Africa had an estimated 10 to 15 million Christians. In 1959, the Catholic church had not yet appointed a single black African cardinal. By 2000, however, Africa had some 350 million Christians, including well over 100 million Catholics.

Some demographers would bet that Latin America will outdistance Africa, and that South America will be first to succeed Europe as the continent with the most Christians. It has long had the heaviest country-by-country Catholic concentrations. Even as Pentecostals and other Christian sects have made converts, South America's Catholic seminaries have grown (up more than 350 percent since 1972). The Vatican counts some 60,000 priests, 100,000 lay missionaries, and 130,000 nuns on the continent.

So, from Brazil to Belize, from Beirut to Boston, religion in over a hundred forms and in a thousand different ways has outlived "modernity" and "postmodernity," too. And whenever religious individuals, ideas, and institutions get newly mobilized into politics and public affairs, at home or abroad, look out, because they have the power to transform things, and fast.

For example, just consider how the late Pope John Paul II changed both the Church and Latin America by throwing Catholicism's weight behind democracy movements there (as he also did on other continents). In 1987, the pope confronted Chile's dictator, General Pinochet, with these words: "I am not the evangelizer of democracy; I am the evangelizer of the Gospel. To the Gospel message, of course, belong all the problems of human rights; and, if democracy means human rights, it also belongs to the message of the Church."

History teaches that democracy has not done well in countries dominated by Catholicism, Islam, and Confucianism. But as I argued in Rome before the Pontifical Academy of Social Sciences in 1998, Catholicism changed after World War II. I invoked the political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset, who, writing that same year, agreed that the Church had changed "in ways that positively affected the potential for democracy."